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U.S. Olympic Festival : Wylie Takes Second Look at Skating Priority

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Barely had Paul Wylie a chance to reflect upon or savor his surprising 10th-place finish at the 1988 Winter Olympics at Calgary when he began to hear the sighs and whispers that presage the end of a career at sport’s upper levels.

And, although the Olympics had been his first major competition at skating’s senior level and his finish was more than respectable, Wylie began to listen to the talk.

“I think people are really inclined to do that,” Wylie said Sunday before the free-skating final at the Olympic Festival here. “People are living off other people’s mistakes in this sport. You just have to live above that.

“That’s how people are. I probably was like that when I was younger. They won’t miss you as a skater, they see you as a notch out. A space for them to move into.”

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Wylie, 24, was tacitly erased from contention by some observers in the sport when he placed third at the national championships in February, thus failing to qualify for the U.S. team that was sent to the World Championships. In a sport based on subjective judging such as skating, it is simply that easy to lose standing.

Thus, Wylie chose to skate in this competition--out of season and partially out of shape--to proclaim his return and reclaim his place behind Christopher Bowman.

The decision to skate here has proved to be a gamble. Wylie muffed the landing on the first jump in his long program Sunday and still managed to get a 5.9 (on a scale of 6) from one judge. However, that mistake was enough to give Mark Mitchell of Hamden, Conn., the gold medal.

Wylie, who is from Denver and lives in Boston, was a distant second. Shepherd Clark of Atlanta won the bronze.

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In addition to losing ground to a younger skater, Wylie showed a vulnerability to judges, who will not likely forget.

Wylie, however, is determined not to forget what he is here for.

“I told the media before the short program (at nationals) that it might be the last time I skated,” Wylie said. “It was really awful. I didn’t enjoy it. The questions still were there.”

Wylie reassessed his priorities after that competition. As skater Debi Thomas had done at Stanford, Wylie had steadfastly refused to cut back his class load at Harvard, where he is a second-semester junior. That stance has changed, however.

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“My plans are to take my school schedule easier and make sure that I’m taking care of skating for the next three years,” he said. “I don’t know exactly the load I will carry but it will not be a full load. Before I wasn’t sure of the priority skating held for me. I know that it does mean something to me.”

Wylie has been experiencing the dual guilt pangs associated with years of compromising his studies and compromising his training.

“I’ve never practiced on a Wednesday, for example, because of school,” he said. “To take one day off a week may not seem like a big deal. But I was skating five days a week and my competitors were skating six. There was a lack of continuity. I’d walk in Thursday and say, ‘I should have been here yesterday.’ There was guilt and there was a feeling of helplessness. I thought, ‘When am I going to school?’ ”

The conflicting emotions collided at the national championships last February at Baltimore, where Wylie admitted he was not prepared.

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“I figured that I could train and go to school full time and make the World team,” he said. “I was wrong.”

Wylie also experienced a singular moment during a performance when he failed to complete the first jump of a combination and--because of pride and obstinacy he said--he refused to even attempt the second jump. This, from a skater who molded a career as an expert and facile jumper.

“In Calgary I missed the first jump in my program and the rest the program was way better,” Wylie said. “That’s what was missing, that tenacity and perseverance that I expect from myself.”

Wylie knew that some sort of change was in order. He said he didn’t rule out quitting, but sought other solutions first. He tried new equipment, experimenting with all manner of boots and blades, finally going back to his old equipment. He took weeks off to refresh his mind.

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The change that seemed to click was a move at the end of June to train in Vail, Colo. with coaches Mary and Evy Scotvold. There he has stripped his skating to its basics and, in the process, discovered the joy he used to know.

“It took me until Vail, until I saw the old jumps coming back,” he said. “They weren’t old, really, they were rejuvenated. I found how fun it is to do things well, how much I enjoy it.”

It is too soon to tell if the reconstitution of Paul Wylie is complete. It is too soon and figure skating is too unpredictable to raise hopes of even the optimistic.

It is even too soon to report that the talk of Wylie being washed up is over, yet. All that can be said with any assurance is that he is no longer listening to anything but his inner voice. And he is happy with what he hears.

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Kristi Yamaguchi, 18, of Fremont, Calif., won the gold in women’s figure skating, ranking first with all seven judges.

“The program wasn’t fully in, with all the choreography, until three weeks before this competition,” she said. “I just wanted to come and try out the new program and see how it worked. I’m pretty happy with it, but I know I have a lot of work to do.

Other gold medalists were April Sargent, of Ogdensburg, N.Y., and Russ Witherby, of Cincinnati, in ice dancing and Calla Urbanski, of Chicago, and Mark Naylor, of Harrisburg, Pa., in pairs competition.


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